The dancer and choreographer was on a career high when the pandemic hit. Now she has created a virtual school powered by the kind of social dance at the heart of her work.
By Salamishah Tillet
Camille A. Brown can’t remember the first time she danced the Electric Slide. She only remembers doing it. “It just was,” she said in a recent Zoom interview. “It’s the same thing with the Running Man or double Dutch. I don’t remember the first time I had a rope in my hand, but I remember the freedom.”
Ms. Brown, 40, a renowned dancer and one of the most sought-after choreographers of her generation, didn’t learn those social dances in school. She picked them up from family and friends — along with a host of other moves with roots in West Africa that African-Americans have passed down, from one generation to another, traded at family reunions and house parties or brought to pop culture and music videos.
Whether the Juba or stepping, social dance has always been a big component of Ms. Brown’s choreography. Her high energy, historically sweeping works are a powerful blend of modern, ballet, hip-hop, West African and African-American vernacular forms.
In recent years, Ms. Brown has expanded beyond the dance world. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her work on “Choir Boy” in 2019, and choreographed “Porgy and Bess” at the Metropolitan Opera. This year would have brought other new challenges: She was slated to make her debut as a theater director with “Ain’t Misbehavin” at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., in August; and was tapped to direct the Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange’s theater piece, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which would have opened this fall. (It is aiming for a 2021 premiere.)
When the pandemic hit, Ms. Brown was on a career high, but like everyone in the performing arts she had to pivot. And like many other dancers and choreographers, she turned to Instagram, where she has created a virtual version of a school she never attended, one in which social dance is the foundation from which everything else flows.
“When everything stopped and shut down,” Ms. Brown said, “it gave me an opportunity to process everything that I had been doing, particularly in the last two years.”
And it gave her time to read and study. “I also knew that the stuff that I wanted to study wasn’t as lifted up,” she said. “So I wanted to provide a space where I can continue to do the studying and also help to educate other people and share what is not always shared in the educational system.”
So Ms. Brown decided to turn over her Instagram page to her company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, to make a different kind of community. There, her dancers offer lessons on social dance; and artists and academics give lectures on the meaning and legacy of the art form. At the same time, Every Body Moves, classes that teach social dance to children, continue online and, in a socially distanced way, in person.
Growing up in Jamaica, Queens, Ms. Brown said, her love for social dance was nurtured by her parents, Lorraine, a social worker, and Stanley, a parole officer.
“I got to see my parents responding to different kinds of music by using their bodies,” she said. “Dance was their vehicle of expression. My dad’s favorite song on Earth was ‘You Called and Told Me’ by Jeff Redd.” As if on cue, she started singing and bobbing her head. “Every time it came on when we were in the car, he would just start dancing and expressing his creative identity. It became my favorite song because he loved it so much.”
When she was 4, her mother enrolled her in tap and ballet classes at the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Queens. By 11, she left to study with Carolyn DeVore, a teacher at the arts center who had opened her own school in 1991. She attended the prestigious LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan, went to the Ailey School during her junior year of high school and to college at the North Carolina School of the Arts.
None of these institutions nurtured that same sense of community and agency she felt when she and her friends did the Wop or the Cabbage Patch together before and after school. “I was taught that ballet was the foundation of dance,” she said, recalling her early training. “Social dances like the Electric Slide were supposed to be left at home, or outside. We were taught that you don’t bring that into the classroom.”
Because of that, African-American communities have defined the value and meaning of social dance for themselves. It is “our form of social address,” Thomas DeFrantz, a professor of dance and African American studies at Duke University, said. “It is how we articulate ourselves within the group, and we’re actually claiming the relationship to dance as being the way that we recognize ourselves in social communion and understand ourselves to be Black.”
When Ms. Brown started her own company in 2006, after being a member of Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence for six years, she integrated social dance into all of her choreography and performance. “The freedom that people have in the Electric Slide,” she said, “that’s the freedom that I asked my dancers to have.”
When she was a TED Fellow in 2016, she focused on that subject. She released a short video called “A Visual History of Social Dance in 25 Moves,” featuring her company doing things like the Twist, the Camel Walk and the Chicken Head. It has garnered almost 1.5 mullion views to date.
Since the end of March, her dancers have led “Social Dance for Social Distance” workshops online. “Because everything’s shut down, this is an opportunity for Camille’s dancers to be able to still engage with an audience,” said Chloe Davis, a company member since 2016, who teaches excerpts from Ms. Brown’s works, including her trilogy, “Mr. TOL E. RAncE,” “Black Girl: Linguistic Play” and “Ink.” “I think this whole concept of having social dance in social distancing is so therapeutic right now.”
Juel D. Lane, who has been dancing with Ms. Brown since they were in college together, said that using Instagram for live teaching required a bit of an adjustment. “It was just trial and error,” he said. But the virtual space also has its appeal. “I made up this quarantine phrase called ‘Pass and Catch,’” he said, “And when I started teaching it, doing little hand things, like the cross, I had to break it down through the vocabulary of social dance. Rather than say, ‘shoulders up,’ I say: ‘Come on, clap your hands, move your shoulders. Eh, eh.’ That’s the language of the community.”
And through a lecture series on Instagram, on Wednesday and Friday afternoons, Ms. Brown has been able to share the intellectual genealogy of social dance, tracing the origins of gestures that are popular in the Black communities in which they thrive. Because these lectures take place in people’s apartments, or in studios, they take on an intimacy that would be lost if delivered in a big hall or on a dance stage.
That was the case with the tap dancer Dexter Jones’s talk about Swing Dance, the first of three lectures. With a cat on top of his television, Mr. Jones broke down a scene from the movie “Hellzapoppin’” (1941), in which Black dancers dressed as maids, drivers and delivery men do the Lindy Hop.
The speed, grace and virtuosity with which these dancers perform their routines is nothing short of extraordinary.
Before showing the brief clip, Mr. Jones explained how African-American migrants from the South tried to recreate their sense of community through dances like the Charleston, the Shimmy, the Buzzard and eventually the Lindy Hop, which was born in Harlem in the late 1920s. He noted that by the time “Hellzapoppin’” featured Swing Dance, it had long been a national craze.
“Within the construct of social dance, you’re allowed the freedom to create and to expand upon an idea,” Mr. Jones said. “And when you are social dancing, you are letting out, and freed to be the person you are inside.” This was especially important for enslaved African-Americans, who invented group dances like the Ring Shout or the Cakewalk as subversive acts against racial oppression.
Since 2015, Ms. Brown has been furthering the cause of social dance through Every Body Move, an initiative that teaches social dance in communities throughout New York City. During the pandemic, those classes have continued in a socially distanced way, in Jamaica, the neighborhood where she grew up.
Adina Williams, the director of community engagement and education at Camille A. Brown & Dancers, recalled a striking moment of intergenerational instruction that took place at a recent class. “This young girl, not quite middle school yet, did the Cakewalk, with such swagger in her stance,” Ms. Williams said. “Then, we made our way to 1990s hip-hop. Her mom said, ‘Oh, that’s me. That’s for me. I know the Kid ’n Play.’ In that one moment, everyone was a teaching artist and student.”
As the pandemic continues, Ms. Brown said she hoped these socially distanced classes, primarily taught by Pia Monique Murray, would continue to provide these children with the agency and delight that social dance inspires in her.
“With kids being in front of their computers every day, the joy of being a kid is being lost right now,” she said. “We can’t let them lose their joy. When we are remote, the power of your voice and your body almost feels lost. We need to remind kids that their superpower will always be there.”
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